Monuments of a tradition

Print edition : January 13, 2006

In Anupu, an amphitheatre constructed during the Ikshavaku period. - T. VIJAYA KUMAR

THE key reason for the selection of Amaravati as the venue for Kalachakra 2006 is that the Mahastupa, constructed between the second and third centuries B.C., stood there. Historical evidence suggests that worshippers used the Mahastupa, containing the relics of the Buddha, at Amaravati until A.D. 1344. Soon after the decline of sea trade during this time, the Amaravati stupa fell into disrepair along with the majority of others along the Krishna river.

The Mahastupa, with a height of 18 metres, had a railing with a circumference of 240 metres. The core of the stupa was built of stone and brick masonry and sculpted attachments and railings were carved from local, light-green limestone. Reliquaries were placed in the solid structure of the dome. The railing pillars were originally decorated with lotus medallions. The Mahastupa is locally known as `Deepaladinne' or `Hillock of Lamps'. Lamps used to be lit on it as part of rituals.

Despite Hinduism being the main religion at that time, India had many Buddhists in a few pockets scattered all over the country. By the end of 1700, the stupa became a mound of mud and a few pieces of rubble. It was in 1797 that a British colonel, Colin Mackenzie, heard of Amaravati and rediscovered the site. Mackenzie recovered the magnificent railings and sculptured friezes from the site. Almost all these excavated items are preserved in museums in Chennai and Kolkata. The archaeological museum on the site contains the panels, the chakras and the caskets containing relics, broken railings and sculptures of the Bodhi tree, apart from galleries containing pottery, coins, bangles and terracotta.

After Mackenzie left, the site became a source of building materials for local builders, and the stone was burned to produce lime. The site had almost been razed to the ground by 1810. Mackenzie returned to Amaravati in 1816 and was shocked to see that many pieces of the sculptures had been taken away for use in local buildings. He began to draw and record the sculptures remaining at the site. He sent some of the sculptures to the museum in Kolkata.

In 1845, Sir Walter Elliot began excavating at the site. He shifted more than 125 marble sculptures to England. They were known as `Elliot's marbles' in England. In the 1880s Robert Sewell excavated the site. Sewell's team made many notes and sketches and a report was later written about the excavation.

Over the years, an enormous number of loose sculptures found their way to the British Museum in England or the museum in Chennai. However, archaeologists at that time did not record the location of the sculptures and the objects they found.

KHARAVELA'S Hathigumpa inscription of 170 B.C., Ptolemy's description about Vintindra city in the Mysolia region in his writings of A.D. 130, Megasthanes' mention of the 30 walled cities of Andhra region - all these refer to Prathipalapura or the present-day Bhattiprolu, about 40 km from Guntur.

An inscription at Bhattiprolu Mahastupa mentions Kubhiraka, believed to be the one who ordered the construction of the stupa, with the help of the gosti (local Buddhist assembly) and the nigama (trading community). The stupa, with a circumference of 148 feet, was among the biggest and the best-known monuments of the region. However, it was forgotten after the death of Kubhiraka.

By 1820, the concentric brick walls of the stupa, which constituted a unique feature of the stupas in Andhra Pradesh, were demolished and used in laying roads as they were found to be "of good quality". The marble inscriptions were used as "locks" for the Krishna Canal. It was owing to the efforts of Sir Walter Elliot, Baswell and Robert Neil that the Bhattiprolu stupa was rediscovered in 1870. Alexander Ray did much restoration work in 1892 when the stupa was in a bad shape.

There was also evidence of well-developed sea trade from Pothavara Lanka, a harbour near Bhattiprolu. The inscription is yet to be deciphered and a few historians have identified it as being in the Dakshinyata Brahmi script, which was in use after the days of Emperor Asoka.

ON the river bank opposite Amaravati is Jagayyapet in Krishna district, about 45 km from Vijayawada. A stupa built there on a hill dates back to the 2nd century B.C. About 60 km from Vijayawada, Ghantasala is a known Buddhist site containing a cubic block made of bricks, which displays the 12 signs of the zodiac in a rare fashion. The dome of the stupa is adorned by 47 slabs depicting the Buddha.

Guntupalli in West Godavari district, 105 km from Guntur, is near Kamavarapukota. One of the most beautiful Buddhist sites, it is located on top of a hill, which has caves cut into the rocky portion of the hill, a circular chaitya-griha and several images of the Buddha. Chandavaram in Prakasam district, located 120 km from Guntur, is visited frequently for its unique double-storeyed stupa located on a hill.

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